Nine Things I Miss About Dance

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I was a dancer in high school and college. (Technically, I was a dancer before then, too, but I was fourteen before it was really a defining part of my life.) Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to take a class since I graduated from college nearly two years ago. I never really intended to give it up and still hope that, at some point in the future, I’ll have the financial means to take some ballet classes again, if only in a recreational capacity. But, for the time being, I suppose it’s fair to call myself a former dancer. And as such, I completely relate to this article that I stumbled across this morning. It’s a list of things that former dancers miss, and it’s mostly pretty readily-apparent things, like the thrill of performing, flexibility, and dancer camaraderie. But there are a lot of things I miss that aren’t so obvious, so I thought I’d make my own list.

1. Pointe shoes

One of my favorite of my own pointe shoe pictures

One of my favorite of my own pointe shoe pictures

Most young ballet students look forward to their first pointe shoes with eager expectation, and for most intermediate ballet students, that first pair of pointe shoes is among the most exciting life milestones they’ve ever reached. It certainly was for me, even though I was a late starter and was in my teens before I got my first pair. I technically started pointe at the age of fourteen, but then when I switched schools, I went off pointe for a year and a half. So I was sixteen before I ever got to the stage where I wore pointe shoes practically on a daily basis and got to perform on pointe. I never really felt fully comfortable on pointe. Still, I loved my pointe shoes and I loved the way my feet looked in them. I even loved all of my old pointe shoes that got too worn-out for use, since battered-up pointe shoes are proof that you’ve danced hard, and they all have so many memories. Most dancers end up having a love-hate relationship with their pointe shoes, since they are painful and do deform a dancer’s feet. I was no exception. But in retrospect, I actually miss some of the downsides of pointe, too. Which brings me to my next point. (Pun not intended, but acknowledged with pleasure)

The feet in this stock photo are actually pretty un-damaged-looking for ballet feet.

Ever wondered what ballet dancers’ feet look like under the pointe shoes? Kind of like this, only usually redder because pointe shoes are tight.

2. Bloody little toes

When you dance on pointe more than once or twice a week, toe afflictions are a normal part of life. I actually was never blister-prone, but I did regularly rub the skin right off my little toes, which is even more painful than it sounds. Of course, I didn’t appreciate the pain, but I did kind of like feeling like I was tough because of it. (Once, I had to use scissors to cut a chunk of partially-disconnected flesh off of my toe. It wasn’t dead skin; it was alive and sensitive skin, and I felt like I was really special for being able to do that to my own foot.) Even when I wasn’t dancing, I could feel that pain on the edge of my foot with every step I took, and it was a constant reminder that dance wasn’t just something I did, it was part of who I was. As annoying and challenging as it was at the time, it’s hard not to miss that sensation, and the blood stains on the toes of all my dance tights and some of my socks, when I was used to feeling like they defined my identity.

3. All those dancer quirks

This one is really just reiterating the article I linked at the beginning of the post, but I wanted to reiterate that, because to me, those little dancer quirks were also integral parts of who I was. I mean things like popping your hips and ankles, complimenting your friends on the shape of their feet, walking or standing with your legs turned out, and being hyper-conscious of whether your hips and shoulders are in line. There’s dancer terminology that other people don’t understand, there are products like jet glue and toe pads that mostly only dancers use, and there are experiences like putting your hair in a bun every day that are normal when you’re a dancer but not normal if you’re not. There are just so many little things along those lines that it’s just natural that dancers get in the habit of thinking of themselves as practically a different species than “normal people”. And yes, dancers do distinguish between “dancers” and “normal people”. There isn’t necessarily an implication that normal people are inferior, but once you’ve experienced both, it’s hard not to feel like being a dancer was just more interesting.

4. The outlet for perfectionism and obsessiveness

pointe shoe music box 2As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it turns out that I actually have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For most of college, I knew it but wasn’t officially diagnosed. I feel like I actually handled it pretty well in college, though, because so many of my obsessions had to do with dance and most of my compulsions had to do with practicing dance. Don’t get me wrong; it was still miserable. I hated myself for not being a good dancer, and I worked myself so hard that it was actually counterproductive. In the summers, when I didn’t have actual class, I would practice for hours on end and would usually only stop when I either collapsed from fatigue or when my Achilles tendonitis got so bad that I could barely stand, much less dance. When I had actual classes, I didn’t work myself quite so hard because I had a teacher there to offer corrections, but I still was constantly overcome with embarrassment and frustration because I was just no good. It didn’t help that I had a teacher freshman year who discouraged me from continuing in the major and that I overheard more skilled classmates making unkind comments about me a couple of times. So, to be honest, I really can’t say that I enjoyed those three years of my dance experience. (My senior year, when I was taking classes off campus, was a different story. Big shout out to the Grebel Center for Dance/Alabama Youth Ballet Company for an enjoyable, productive, and injury-free year of ballet.) At the time, I told myself that the occasional moments of success were so wonderful that they made up for all the literal blood, sweat, and tears. But it was more than that; it also helped me keep the rest of my life relatively free from all the self-disgust, perfectionist obsession, anxiety, and pressure that come with OCD.

5. That moment when you do something just right

But don’t get me wrong; ballet isn’t all pain and misery, even for someone like me who is unfortunate enough to be a mediocre perfectionist. There are few things in life more exciting and fulfilling than that rare moment when you do a flawless pirouette or an especially high jete, or when you get through a tricky combination without messing up, or when you really like what you see in the mirror while you’re dancing. Both emotionally and physically, it feels like a special moment and it makes you happy in a way that other parts of your life just can’t do. Bonus points if your teacher notices and comments. There’s no kind of validation more satisfying than when a hard-to-please dance teacher is pleased with you.

Natalia Osipova, one of my favorite ballerinas

Natalia Osipova, one of my favorite ballerinas

6. Getting to watch dance all the time

As great as it is to dance, it’s great to watch dance, too. When you take dance classes at a quality dance school, you constantly get to see some really great dancing. And you get to see it up close and personal. Sometimes, you even get to vicariously experience what it would be like to be a better dancer than you are. Watching ballerinas on youtube is fun, but sitting on the floor of a dance studio in rehearsal and watching your friends’ and classmates’ pointe shoes on the dance floor is a completely different experience. Even in class, watching other dancers can be a rewarding experience. Certainly, non-dancers can sometimes have the opportunity to watch dancers in such an environment, especially if they are parents of young dance students. But being a dancer enriches the experience because you know what it’s like to be that dancer you’re watching, and you know the difference between a fairly good dancer and a great dancer with impeccable technique. The same goes for watching performances; it’s an enhanced viewing experience if you know a lot about what you’re watching.

7. The routine of a classical ballet class

One reason that classical ballet is by far my favorite dance form is that it’s so neat and organized. Every class follows the same routine, which feels comfortable and comforting to people like me who like routine, and makes it really easy to track progress. The exact combinations vary from day to day, which keeps class from getting boring, but the structure is always the same. Some dancers actually don’t like that, but I always did. Maybe it’s partly because of my OCD, but to me, it made me feel like ballet class was my natural habitat, even if I was devoid in natural talent. That feeling of being at home is something that I’ve never been able to establish to the same degree anyplace else. Since ballet is so all-consuming, most ballet dancers would probably relate to that, even if it isn’t the classroom routine that made them feel that way.

8. The way a performance takes over your life

Snow scene from the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker

Snow scene from the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker

The article that I linked earlier alludes to this, but I wanted to include it as a specific point in my list. For me, unlike most dancers, the actual performance isn’t necessarily the whole point of dance, but it is the most exciting part. For months, you’ve been practicing the same thing over and over and over, and all of a sudden you get to do it in a costume, on a stage, with people watching. Even better, (in my opinion) there are several days where dance is really truly your whole life. For a dance school where the performers are children and teens, the last week before the performance usually goes like this. The weekend before the show, there are several-hour-long rehearsals in the dance studio on both Saturday and Sunday, usually with costumes and props. The studio is busier than usual, because the full cast and a lot of the parents, as well as maybe some guest performers and/or board members, are in the building at the same time. Everyone is feeling stressed, but everyone is excited, too. On Monday and Tuesday, rehearsals will probably still be in the studio, but they’ll probably start as soon as the dancers get out of school and will go until nine or maybe ten in the evening. (Little kids will probably leave once they’re done dancing, but older dancers will stay until all rehearsing is done, even if they don’t dance for the last half hour or hour of rehearsal.) Wednesday and Thursday are usually full dress rehearsals in the theater. Dancers come straight from school, put on their leotards and makeup, have a warmup class on stage, and rehearse all evening until at least ten O’clock or so. Then they go home, eat a super-late supper, and go to sleep immediately, just to do the same thing the next day. Friday evening is usually the first performance. There might be two shows on Saturday, in which case dancers probably arrive by nine or ten in the morning for warm-up, and don’t leave the theater for even a moment until ten or eleven at night. Sunday early afternoon is usually the last show, and everyone’s exhausted but pumped up. Sunday matinees were always my favorite show. Sometimes, there will be a casual photo shoot and/or cast party afterwards. Then it takes several days to recover. It’s exhausting, but it’s fun, and there’s really nothing else in life like it.

9. The constant sense of hope

Maybe I’m a bit of an optimist, but I always assumed that I was just days or weeks away from suddenly improving drastically, and I always had my sights on a bright future in dance, even though that became increasingly implausible as I got older. Even in college, when I had to gradually face the fact that I didn’t really have a shot at a career in dance, there was always that sense that maybe tomorrow would be the day that I’d do a triple pirouette on pointe, or that maybe next week or the week after, my arabesque would be higher than it was today, or that maybe, if I spent a couple hours straight practicing petite allegro over the weekend, I would suddenly be good at it next Monday. Hope is a funny thing. Even when it’s unrealistic, it makes hard work worth doing and hardships worth enduring. But in most aspects of life, goals are a little less concrete and effort is a little bit less quantifiable. In dance, it’s sometimes easier to believe that all your hopes and dreams are just barely out of your reach and will be easily achievable if you can make it just one step farther. And when you feel that way, it gives meaning and purpose to everything you do.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything I miss. But I think it gives a sense of how much dance means when you’re a dancer. It’s not all about fun and glitz, and a former dancer loses more than a hobby and a little glitter. Part of you dies when you stop dancing.

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Why I Don’t Like Liturgical Dance

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I was a dance major in college, and on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that I ought to do liturgical dance in church. That disturbed me, especially in one particular case where it was a visiting pastor who said it. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about the idea of liturgical dance, because I know a number of well-meaning and sincere Christians who have participated in liturgical dance, and besides, there technically is nothing heretical about it. But there are a number of reasons that liturgical dance just isn’t a very good idea. I was reminded of all these reasons when I saw a youtube video on facebook yesterday of a liturgical dance performance in a Lutheran church. I should acknowledge the fact that the person who posted the link and the other people who commented on it shared my dislike for liturgical dance, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who don’t see what’s wrong with it. As someone who has had to express a specific opinion on this issue before, I’d like to offer a list of reasons why I don’t approve of liturgical dance.

1. Dance is a performance art where the focus is on the performer

praise danceIn general, a choreographed dance is intended to display the skill of the dancer(s) and/or to be a form of artistic self-expression for the choreographer and dancer(s). Either way, the focus is on the dancer(s) themselves, and the viewers’ impressions and reactions are supposed to reflect that. Yes, dancers and choreographers can and do use dance to tell stories, to convey emotions, and to express ideas, but those stories, emotions, and ideas are based upon and centered around the dancers’ bodies. I think that dance is the most performer-centered art form. If you don’t agree, think of what happens when dancers and musicians perform together. From the audience’s point of view, and usually from the performers’ perspective as well, the dancers are the real stars and the musicians are just providing accompaniment. I am not saying this to insult dance as an art form or to imply that dancers are egotistical. As someone who has spent an awful lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears on dance, I definitely think that dancers deserve appreciation for their talent and dedication. But I also think that it is inherent in the nature of dance that it is impossible for the audience’s focus to be on anything other than the dancer. For that reason, dance does not belong in a worship service. Even if the dancers genuinely are doing it in praise of God, the audience is paying attention to the dancers, not God.

2. Liturgical dance tends to have theological problems

I suppose that it would be hypothetically possible to choreograph a dance piece that had accurate theological significance. But all of the liturgical dance videos that I can find on the internet seem to fall into one of two groups: they are either a meaningless and repetitive series of generic dance moves set to a theologically shallow praise song, or they portray a personal struggle that ends with the main character finding her way to God. (I say “her” because I actually haven’t seen much of any liturgical dances featuring men) I realize that there really are some Christians who actually believe that Christianity is all about winning a personal struggle against evil and achieving faith and salvation, but that’s not a biblical idea. If these dances were theologically accurate, they would first make it clear that the main character is a sinner herself, not an innocent victim of vague evil powers, and then show that it is God Himself who brings salvation to the sinner, rather than an individual’s own personal victory. The choreography also ought to work the crucifixion and resurrection into its story, because those are absolutely central to Christianity, and any “Christian” message that leaves them out is running the risk of not really being Christian. If the congregation doesn’t want to see a liturgical dance that doesn’t portray the individual Christian as the hero, then they obviously don’t have the kind of devoted faith in God that their lead liturgical dancer shows at the end of her performance, and probably are confused about what faith is anyway. Faith is not wearing a white dress and making graceful gestures towards the altar while nobody dressed in black pulls you back anymore; it is belief in God and the salvation that comes from Him. These people would benefit a lot more from hearing the law and gospel in their service than from watching an artistic expression of what the Christian life is like.

3. “Do everything to the glory of God” isn’t just about the church service

I'm really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

I’m really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

This oft-quoted phrase is from 1 Corinthians 10:31, and it is often completely taken out of context, since that passage is about whether it’s okay for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods. That isn’t an outdated and irrelevant passage because it applies to other situations where the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. But it really has nothing to do with the worship service. A variation of this phrase also appears in Colossians 3:17, but it’s still quite a stretch to read that passage as saying that a person is compelled to display all of their God-given talents in the worship service. There’s this thing called vocation; it means that it’s good and godly for us to do whatever we’re supposed to do in every aspect of our lives, and not just in the worship service. Even a world-famous professional dancer wouldn’t be compelled to dance in church in order to justify the fact that dance is his/her God-given talent. After all, the church service can’t encompass everyone’s individual abilities. What if you’re a rocket scientist or a marine biologist or a soccer player or something? Good luck finding a way to showcase those useful and significant God-given talents in a worship service. If everyone actually believed that doing something to the glory of God required doing it in church, the worship service would be nothing but a talent show. I think it’s really a symptom of the trend towards Sunday-morning-only-Christianity that anyone would believe that performing in a church service is somehow more Christian than using whatever talents you have been given throughout your life, even in contexts that aren’t exclusively Christian.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really... edifying. I'm sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really… edifying. I’m sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

4. Liturgical dance is not liturgical, it’s a distraction

I got this on google but I can't figure out what the original source was.

I got this on google but I can’t figure out what the original source was.

I have heard people comment with surprise about the fact that churches of different denominations sometimes have very similar liturgies. For example, the traditional Lutheran liturgy is pretty similar to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. That is not just a weird coincidence. It’s a result of the fact that every traditional liturgical church can trace the history of its liturgy back to the early church. Over the centuries, many traditions have stayed more or less the same because they just work so well. It’s not just a matter of the aesthetic beauty of an “old-fashioned” church service; the ancient liturgy is theologically rich. Law and gospel are embedded within the order of the service itself, most of the responses come directly from the Bible, and old hymns tend to be much more meaningful and didactic than modern praise songs. That’s not to say that innovations are evil. There’s nothing wrong with singing a hymn that was written relatively recently, just as long as it is theologically accurate and actually says something. There’s nothing wrong with using an instrument other than a pipe organ, just as long as that doesn’t lead to singing songs that aren’t theologically accurate and don’t actually say anything. There’s nothing wrong with using technology in the church service, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. And by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with adding something new and artistic to the liturgy, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. But liturgical dance doesn’t serve a purpose because it doesn’t offer anything that the ancient, traditional, liturgical service is lacking. It just interrupts the flow of a service that has a logical and meaningful order without it. At least a musical solo can be smoothly incorporated into the service because the liturgy is already characterized by music. People who want to see liturgical dance or other diversional performance acts in the worship service are just looking for entertainment, and that’s not the purpose of worship. In fact, catering to people’s desire for entertainment in church can be dangerous because it reinforces the belief that religion is just another kind of recreational hobby.

In conclusion, I think that liturgical dance is parallel to popular Christian praise music. Both are creative art forms that have little or no theological value and don’t belong in the worship service. But in both cases, they are perfectly acceptable and maybe even good things outside of the divine service. There’s no reason that mainstream art and culture can’t include non-satirical references to God, sincere praise for God, and positive portrayals of Christianity. If Christians find those types of music and dance to be likable and entertaining, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy them in their everyday lives. Maybe some people will even find that such things reinforce their beliefs and values to some extent. But no religious-themed but theologically shallow art form is faith-giving, or acts as an acceptable substitute for the divine service or for any aspect of it.

‘Tis the Life of a Dancer, Episode 2

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102_0102I recently got a new pair of pointe shoes. Like almost every other pair I’ve ever had, they’re Grishko 2007, 5.5 XXX, medium shank. To anyone who isn’t familiar with ballet and with pointe shoe lingo, that means absolutely nothing. To anyone who is, it gives a pretty specific description of what my feet are like, because pointe shoes are a very individualized thing. Different dancers have different pointe shoe preferences based mainly upon the shape, size, and strength of their feet. If I wanted to give you an even better knowledge of the nature of my feet, I could do so by describing exactly how this particular type of shoe fits me.

For those of you who don’t know much about pointe shoes, I will clarify that Grishko is the brand, 2007 is the name of that particular product, 5.5 is the size, (which obviously does not correspond to street shoe size), XXX is the width, and “medium shank” refers to the stiffness of the part of the shoe that would be called the sole in most types of shoe.  (Technically, a pointe shoe has both a shank and a sole, but they’re more or less in the same part of the shoe) I haven’t actually tried enough different types of shoes to be completely sure that this is the best possible shoe for me; in fact, I would expect that a shoe with a shorter vamp would be more comfortable given the shape of my toe joints. Still, I’m pretty fond of the Grishko 2007. It fits decently and, in my personal opinion, it’s basically the prettiest pointe shoe available.

I'm sticking this is just for reference, although some of these labels aren't terms that are used very often.

I’m sticking this is just for reference, although some of these labels aren’t terms that are used very often.

Despite my regard for my particular kind of pointe shoes, and despite the pointe shoe obsession that I share with pretty much every other ballet student in the world, I thoroughly hate getting new pointe shoes. Of course, it’s very difficult to dance in old shoes that have gotten too soft and weak, (or, to use a technical term, “dead”) but the transition from a dead pair of shoes to a brand new pair of shoes is pretty miserable.

Have you ever gotten a finger or toe slammed in a door? Wearing new pointe shoes for the first time feels like having your entire foot slammed in a door, with someone holding the door shut on your foot for the duration of the class or rehearsal. Just in case anyone reads that as hyperbole or humor, I want to emphasize that it really isn’t. A new pair of pointe shoes is extremely hard and quite tight, even if it fits just fine a few days later. Bruises, blisters, bloody toes, and swelling are so characteristic of the ballet experience that it’s weird and unusual not to be suffering from at least one of those afflictions at any given time. Stress fractures and tendonitis are perfectly normal, too, although they are more avoidable. Crushed toes are not avoidable at all. Of course, in my case, the thing about the longer-than-ideal vamp doesn’t help. And it’s true that it’s possible to start breaking pointe shoes in before actually dancing in them, which also helps. But there’s only so much that can be done; it’s inevitable that the first time one wears a new pair of pointe shoes is not going to be an enjoyable experience.

This particular shoe and I got along quite nicely, at least for a couple weeks in the middle of its career.

This particular shoe and I got along quite nicely, at least for a couple weeks in the middle of its career.

It seems like every pair of pointe shoes breaks in slightly differently. Some pairs become reasonably comfortable as soon as they’ve been worn a couple times and have softened just a little bit. Others remain tight and painful right up until the moment that they’re too dead to feel right and function properly. When a pair of shoes is temperamental like that, bruised toenails are inevitable, because that is a problem caused both by shoes that are too hard and shoes that are too soft. On some pointe shoes, the shank is the first part to die, which basically means that the shoe becomes too weak along the bottom of the foot and it becomes difficult to hold the foot in the correct position on pointe. That will hinder balance and control, but it actually makes the dancer’s foot look really good on pointe and it doesn’t generally hurt. Other times, the first part to go soft is the part where the platform meets the bottom of the vamp. (That is, the front of the shoe right at the tip) I know that other people sometimes have the platform die before anything else, but that isn’t something I’ve experienced. I don’t know whether that’s because of the kind of shoe I have or because of the shape of my foot.

On my new pointe shoes, the shanks are probably going to be the first thing to die. They’re already pretty well broken in, which is great right now because it means that the shoes already look good on my feet, (which sometimes can take a few days or even weeks) but it probably means that I can’t count on the shanks to stay hard for very long. The box, on the other hand, is still pretty tight. In fact, on the right shoe, I’ve even bruised my fingers while pulling my shoe onto my foot, and not surprisingly, my foot is more badly bruised. I’m hoping that they’ll soften soon and that this pair of shoes will be friends with me, but I’m guessing that this will be the kind of pair that will be dead before I really have finished breaking them in. (Note to my sister: It’s okay for me to end this sentence with a preposition because the word “in” is not acting as a preposition; it’s acting as part of the verb “break in”.)

102_0103So, to all the non-dancers who like to ask if it “hurts to stand on your toes like that”, the answer is yes. Yes, it does. But we do it anyway because it’s fun and it looks cool.

Why I’m a Math Minor

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knotsAfter the end of classes on Friday, I attended a riveting talk by a guest mathematician who was in town for some sort of conference. He was a knot theorist, and in his talk, he introduced us to the beautiful and extremely interesting mathematical principles of knot theory and topological graphing as related to knot theory. I admit that a good deal of it went over my head, mainly because of unfamiliar terminology, but I still found it fascinating. It was a great way to spend the first hour of my weekend. That may sound like sarcasm, but it isn’t. I truly did enjoy the talk, and I truly did leave it feeling much happier and much more motivated about life in general than I ever have after having heard an inspirational speech. (Inspirational speeches, in my opinion, are quite corny and fairly irrelevant despite the fact that they are specifically trying to be universally relevant.)Despite the fact that I didn’t understand everything the speaker said, I now am interested in finding books and online articles in order to learn more about knot theory. And I almost find myself wishing that I had another semester or two left after this so that I could take more math classes and become a math major instead of a minor.

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

People are always surprised when I tell them that I’m minoring in math. In part, this is because I already am a double major and I’m in the honor’s program, and this situation has led to the need to take ridiculous course overloads several semesters. Adding another minor on top of all of that does seem a bit excessive. Besides that, my two majors are dance and English, and both of those fields seem to be very distinct from mathematics. At my college, it seems like most of the English majors hate math with a passion, and most people who have non-humanities majors dislike English almost as strongly. The dance program is actually somewhat of an overlap area; I’m aware of several people who have graduated with a dance/English double major in the past few years, and I’m aware of several current or recent dance students who have also taken a lot of math classes, either as a math major (or minor) or as a business major. In fact, considering how few dance students there are, it’s interesting just how frequently I have had a classmate in an upper-level academic class who is also a classmate in dance. But I don’t know anyone else who has taken upper-level classes in all three programs.

My decision to be a math minor is even stranger in light of the fact that I myself am one of those kinds of English majors who hates math with a passion. I always have. When I was little, math was the bane of my existence, and it only got worse when I got into algebra. I couldn’t wait to get to college, where I could take classes only in things that interested me and never do any math ever again. If someone had told my little-kid self or my high-school-aged self that I would voluntarily take five mathematics classes in college, (not to mention a logic class and a couple of science classes that required mathematical knowledge) and that those classes would be among my favorite college courses because of their structure and objective logic, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Yet I somehow did become the kind of person who appreciates mathematics for its precision and its order and its sheer usefulness.

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

My hatred of math stemmed from the fact that I just wasn’t any good at it. This wasn’t entirely a case of stupidity; I was homeschooled and my parents used a very difficult math curriculum. They still insist that those math books are wonderful and that my siblings and I benefitted greatly from them. I still insist that those math books were evil and that they caused much emotional trauma in my childhood. I blame them for all of the problems in my life, from my social ineptness to my concerns about paying for college to the way my Achilles tendon sometimes makes a disturbing snapping noise in the middle of dance class because of an ongoing case of tendonitis. I’m not quite sure what this has to do with childhood mathematical trauma, but it surely does.

When I started college, I knew I was going to have to take a math class at some point, and I wasn’t happy about it. I took calculus I during the spring of my freshman year, and I went into that class expecting that it would be miserable and that I would do terribly. I resolved to put a lot of time and effort into that class, but I wasn’t optimistic that it would pay off. But it did. In fact, once I somehow managed to get through the first few weeks, it stopped being particularly difficult, and by the end of the term, I was consistently getting perfect scores on homework and exams. That semester was a very frustrating time for me in regards to dance, and it was very reassuring to be doing well in academics. That class ended up being stress-relieving rather than stressful. When I took statistics in fall of my junior year, it was just because I had to take one more math or social science, but it turned out to offer the same comforting stability in my life that calculus had. I didn’t do quite as well in statistics, but I still ended up getting an A with plenty of room to spare. In the meantime, I felt as if my dance and English classes were being graded on a subjective scale according to a secret rubric. It was at some point during that semester that I decided to get the math minor by taking three more math classes over the next three semesters. I took calculus two that spring and am now taking calculus three and linear algebra.

A cool wall in the math building at my college

A cool wall in the math building at my college

It’s too soon in the semester to be making judgments about how well these classes are working out for me, but I feel like things are promising. After struggling in calculus two, I’m not counting on getting spectacular grades in these upper level classes, but then again, my schedule is so much lighter now than it was then, and I’m a year older and smarter, and I’m sure I gained some mathematical proficiency by fighting my way through that course. In fact, my calculus two professor encouraged me towards the math minor because he thought that I was sufficiently competent to do it. So now I have found myself living in a world where advanced mathematics are a major part of my everyday life and I am learning to solve problems that would have terrified me out of my wits not long ago.

When I started studying from my linear algebra textbook for the first time, it struck me what it is that I’m doing. The book occasionally uses phrases like “later in your career”, as if anyone who’s taking that class will go on to be a mathematician or something. Of course, math majors don’t take that class in their second semester of senior year; they’re more likely to take it as juniors, and then they still have several higher –level math classes to take. Those are classes that I’ll never reach, and so my linear algebra book isn’t really talking to me when it defines its audience as future professional mathematicians. Still, these math people are my fellow classmates. I’m taking classes that would be well beyond the scope of my abilities or interest if it wasn’t for the fact that I just couldn’t resist the urge to take on one more thing.

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

That doesn’t really answer the question of why I would be a math minor. After all, my career plans don’t involve math, and if all I wanted was the sense of logical comfort that I don’t find in an English class, I would have been better off not taking the extra math classes and finding logical comfort in some aspect of life that doesn’t involve the stress of tests and grades. Maybe I was also motivated by the desire to get as many majors and minors as possible in order to feel smart and successful, but I don’t think that played a very large role in my desire to minor in math, because I am well aware of the fact that things don’t work that way. People who graduate with double majors are no more intelligent or accomplished than people with one major, and throwing a minor into the mix doesn’t really make me a better person, either. I think I had another motivation for going for the math minor. It’s that math is hard and it’s made me very unhappy at times, and I can’t let it win.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren't generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren’t generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I generally enjoy helping my younger sisters with their math. There are several reasons for that, including the obvious facts that they appreciate it and that it makes me feel like I’m clever. The main reason, though, is that I have survived those very same math books, and so I am glad for the opportunity to go back and gloat in their evil faces. My poor innocent sisters now must suffer the same hardships that I did, but here’s the cool part. When I’m helping them with their math, I have the privilege of saying that the math book is stupid, pushing it aside, and doing the problem my way. When I was little, I was never allowed to say that the math book was stupid, and my parents got mad when I insisted that the math book was to blame for my failure to understand certain concepts. But now I’m allowed to look at the book and say, “This doesn’t make any sense. No wonder you don’t get it. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was in this book.”  And then comes the part where I call the book stupid and explain the problem my own way. There have been a number of times that I have succeeded where the book has failed in explaining a concept to my sisters. In other words, by figuring out how to do math, I am defeating my old enemy, the odious math book. I think that’s good motivation for getting a minor in mathematics.

‘Tis the Life of a Dancer, Episode 1

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This is Natalia Osipova. She is extremely awesome.

This is Natalia Osipova. She is extremely awesome.

I’m not going to claim that I’m a professional-level dancer, or that I’ve dedicated every moment of my entire life to ballet, or that I look like those astonishingly beautiful ballerinas who inspire both envy and dedication in every ballet student who frequents youtube and reads dance magazines. But I have dedicated a significant amount of my life to ballet over the past six or seven years, I am a dance major in college, and I do have enough experience and knowledge that I feel entirely qualified to make the points that I want to make here. Basically, it comes down to this: Most people just don’t understand ballet.

Of course, you could probably say that about any profession, field of study, sport, or hobby. I think that every activity can really only be understood by people who have dedicated a lot of time and effort to it. False assumptions and silly stereotypes exist for any job, pastime, or field of interest. But I think that ballet is even more subject to misunderstandings and absurd opinions because it’s such a common interest. Almost everyone thinks they know more about it than they really do, simply because ballet is so prevalent in pop culture. In our society, most females, as well as some males, have at some point in their life taken at least a few dance classes, and in many of these cases, those classes were preschooler-level ballet classes. Contrary to what many people seem to think, that doesn’t really constitute ballet experience. It doesn’t even constitute a taste of what ballet is really like.

For that age group, ballet classes generally consist of running around, playing charade-like games, and wearing things like pink tutus and tiaras. Even at a very good pre-professional ballet school, actual ballet technique usually isn’t taught until the student is at least six or seven years old. This isn’t because the teachers don’t care about the little kids; it’s because it’s physically impossible for children that young to do ballet. For example, babies don’t have arches in their feet, and those arches usually don’t develop until around the age of four. Until then, the child cannot point his or her foot, at least not as well as ballet technique necessarily requires. (There are exceptions, of course. I remember one time being at the zoo and noticing a baby who had beautiful ballet feet. This was such an unusual sight that it surprised me at the time and has stuck in my mind ever since.)Also, although little children are capable of greater flexibility than older children and adults, it isn’t safe for a young child to stretch as much as a serious ballet student must. A little kid who stretches too much could do permanent damage to his or her ligaments. This is a risk at any age, but especially for children with immature ligaments and joints. One of the biggest ballet impediments to little kids, of course, is that bodily awareness takes years to develop. Not only does every child need to reach a certain age to have good control of his or her muscles, but it also usually takes several years of dance experience beyond that to have the control necessary to really be ready for the precision of ballet class. For all these reasons, very few dancers under the age of about seven or eight are really training in “real” ballet, even at a top-notch classical ballet school.

I am not saying all of this to demean young dance students or to deny the value of dance classes at a young age. I think that pre-ballet classes for little kids are very beneficial, both to the children taking the classes and to the dance schools offering the classes. (Not to mention the fact that young aspiring ballerinas make up a significant portion of ballet’s fan base, so ballet itself as an art form benefits from encouraging these young dance students) It’s just that, if someone took ballet for a couple years when they were little and then quit, they don’t really know anything more about ballet than someone who has never taken a class in their life. That isn’t an exaggeration; pretty much everyone has seen enough ballerina storybooks and ballerina pictures to have some idea of what ballet looks like and to be familiar with a couple ballet positions. The idea of the ballet world that a four-year-old ballet student has will pretty much correspond to the coloring-book-and-paper-dolls version of the ballet world. Only after years of training, countless hours of classes and rehearsals, a good deal of pain and frustration, and unquantifiable amounts of hard work, will a dance student have genuinely experienced the way ballet really works.

Music BoxI think that the predominant idea of ballet in pop culture is that a female ballet dancer is ethereal, graceful, and very delicate. That really is the effect that ballet dancers want to have; ballet is supposed to look light and effortless. But it isn’t light and effortless at all. Gaynor Minden, a dancewear company that specializes in pointe shoes, uses the phrase “It’s Amazing What Goes into Making Something Look Effortless” as a sort of advertising headline. That line is very true. A ballerina’s delicacy comes from a lifetime of grueling hard work, the endurance to push through pain on a daily basis, and thick enough skin to be able to tolerate constant corrections and criticism from teachers. What the audience perceives as delicacy is actually toughness. I’m saying this as someone who has experienced enough of this to know how difficult and painful it can be, but who knows that all I’ve been through is just a pathetically tiny fraction of what a professional dancer has experienced.

To be fair, I do think that the general public is aware that ballet isn’t all pink tulle and fairy tales. I do think that it’s commonly understood that serious ballet training takes a lot of hard work and discipline. If the questions that people sometimes ask me can be taken as valid evidence, it has occurred to most people to wonder if pointe shoes hurt, if dancers get injured very often, and if all those classes and rehearsals are time-consuming. In each of those cases, the answer is yes, and much more so than any non-dancer can realize. I have had multiple stress fractures as well as ongoing Achilles tendonitis for a few years now, not to mention perpetually bruised toenails and, of course, sore muscles and any number of random aches and pains. I use myself merely as an example; anyone who spends a significant amount of time in ballet classes experiences the exact same injuries and pains that I do.

There are emotional side effects of ballet, too. Classical ballet technique is extremely precise; it’s a big deal if your arm is just a little too low or if your ankle is at slightly the wrong angle or if the muscle just above your kneecap isn’t working quite as hard as it should be. Any muscle in the body could be too tense or too loosely held. Any limb or digit could be too stiff or not straight enough. In any move, you have to be conscious of every single part of your body at every single instant, and the slightest mistake is a problem that needs to be fixed. Perfection simply doesn’t exist in ballet because there are just too many possible things to be wrong. Even if a dancer somehow did manage to achieve flawless technique, he or she would still be imperfect because it would always be possible to jump a little higher or move a little faster or to get a few more rotations into each turn. Besides that, there would be certain positions or moves that just aren’t flattering to the body type or dancing style of even the most perfect dancer. Classical ballet choreography doesn’t allow certain moves to be edited or omitted just because they don’t look good on the dancer. A dancer is required to constantly strive for utter perfection, but there’s no such thing as utter perfection. It’s a goal that is automatically doomed to failure, and every dancer feels the frustration of that failure acutely.

This is an image that's been going aroumd the internet a lot, and I don't know where it came from originally, but this is exactly what most dancer's feet look like. Not immediatly after the pointe shoes come off, though. They normally would be a little more red and swollen for an hour or two.

This is an image that’s been going aroumd the internet a lot, and I don’t know where it came from originally, but this is exactly what most dancer’s feet look like. Not immediatly after the pointe shoes come off, though. They normally would be a little more red and swollen for an hour or two.

And then there’s the fatigue. A normal ballet class lasts ninety minutes, and I usually am physically exhausted within ten to fifteen minutes, which means that I spend the rest of the class just trying to get through it. When there are rehearsals after class, the rehearsals can go on for several hours. Schedules get really intense during theater week. Before one show that we did at my college, I spent so much time in the dance studio and the theater that I moved my laptop and all my schoolbooks into the locker room and only returned to my dorm for a few hours a night to get a bit of sleep and to take a shower before heading off to the next day of academic classes, dance rehearsals, and murderous fatigue. I can only imagine how much crazier it must be for a professional dancer. At major companies, dance is a full-time job. At smaller companies, dance is an almost-full-time job with part-time pay, while all of the dancers work other jobs and many of them are also working towards their education. It’s hard enough to be a college dance major; it must be even harder to be both a professional dancer and a college student.

One aspect of life as a dance major that I find particularly annoying is that we aren’t supposed to complain about dance. It’s okay for someone in any academic major to sometimes get tired of their field of study, to dislike certain courses or professors, and to be delighted when the semester is over and they get a break. College students complain about their classes to their classmates and also to their friends in different  disciplines, they whine about how little sleep they get and how much time they spend studying, and they constantly talk about how hard school is. It’s just kind of a fact of college life; college takes a lot of work and college students are supposed to complain about it as much as they want. But dancers are supposed to always love dance, to never be too tired for dancing, and to continue dancing over breaks if at all possible. If they do complain, their non-dancer friends think they’re babies, because dance classes are fun classes, right? When dancers feel overworked or get burned out, that’s seen as being completely different, and somehow less valid, than the kind of exhaustion that comes from academic work. As a double major who has put a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice into both dance and academics, I can tell you that academic work is extremely easy compared to ballet. For most classes, you can just sit there the whole time long. Even if you pulled an all-nighter and are extremely tired, even if you have a killer migraine, even if you have a painful injury, even if you’re utterly depressed and unmotivated, it’s always technically possible to sit through a class. I’ve been through all of those scenarios many times, and so have most college students. Chances are, the worst thing that could happen to you is that you can’t focus and don’t pick up certain topics as quickly as you should. (Well, there’s also the risk of falling asleep in class, which is something that every sleep-deprived college student has to come up with his or her own strategy for avoiding.)  In ballet class, on the other hand, you could severely injure yourself or collapse from sheer fatigue and overwork. That’s not even hyperbole; it has happened to me on more than one occasion and I’ve been aware of it happening to other dancers as well. And that’s not just something that’s isolated to college-age or adult dancers. Burnout and injury from overwork are things that can happen to young intermediate-level dancers as well. I don’t know the statistics, but I think it’s safe to say that most serious ballet students over the age of eleven or twelve have experienced multiple injuries, have been through a lot of dance-related stress, and have had moments when they genuinely hated ballet.

I still have my first pair of pointe shoes, and they still fit. They look like this.

I still have my first pair of pointe shoes, and they still fit. They look like this.

Of course, when you say these kinds of things to non-dancers, they will probably assume that you’re exaggerating or at least being dramatic. And if they do take you seriously, they will wonder why you would continue dancing if it makes you so unhappy. A lot of dancers have a cliché answer to the “Why do you dance?” question, usually something along the lines of “Because movement is in my soul,” or “Because it makes me feel whole” or “Why do you breathe?” I’ve never had a good answer for that question, at least not one that’s completely honest. The real reason I’m a college dance major is just because otherwise, I would have had to make ballet a much lower priority in my life. And the real reason I got so involved in ballet when I was a teenager was just because I was so frustrated by it that I couldn’t help putting a lot of work into it. Those aren’t very inspirational and quotable reasons, especially not when you add the fact that I never did, and probably never will, get anywhere near good enough to justify all that I’ve put into my pursuit of balletic excellence. It’s very hard for me to explain why I dance; it’s much easier for me to explain why I continue dancing in spite of everything.

This was my facebook profile picture for a while. I'm just sticking it here because I happen to like it.

This was my facebook profile picture for a while. I’m just sticking it here because I happen to like it.

There are some joys in life that you never really experience outside of ballet. There’s the sense of accomplishment after a performance or after a particularly good class. There are the occasional encouraging words from teachers who give compliments so rarely that a single kind word from them is worth more than all of the empty praise in the world. There’s the sensation that you occasionally get at the very top of a jump that went higher than usual or in the middle of a turn that went around more times than usual. There’s the satisfaction of suddenly doing something correctly that you’ve spent years working on and hating yourself for being unable to do. There’s the feeling of stepping out of hot and sweat-filled classroom into the sunlight and breeze of a beautiful afternoon like the one I was fortunate enough to see yesterday. There’s the type of slight soreness that isn’t bad enough to be a problem and actually makes you feel almost kind of proud because it comes from hard work. There’s the knowledge that you’re capable of doing things that most people can’t, even if you can’t always do them as well as your classmates. Sometimes, there are moments in class when you see yourself in the mirror and realize that you actually look like a dancer. And it doesn’t even matter whether that position or step is hard, or if it hurts your feet, because that’s not the point. The point is that you’re doing something correctly and it looks the way it should.

Because really, when it comes down to it, all of the work and all of the hardships of classical ballet serve one purpose, and that purpose is to embody that image of the fairy tale ballerina who is so elegant, effortless, light, graceful, and delicate that no audience member could ever guess that her feet hurt or that she’s dead tired. That perfection is not what it’s really like to be a ballet dancer, but it’s still what the art of ballet itself is like.

When We Exchange Our Black Leotards for White Tulle

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Snow scene from the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker

Snow scene from the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker

10:15 AM

Today is the first and second performances of The Nutcracker, which means that I kind of live at the theater this weekend. I have three parts: Party Parent in the beginning of Act I, Snowflake in the end of Act I, and Flower in Act II. Yesterday didn’t go so well, but then again, the dress rehearsal never does. Now I know where the theater is, so it won’t take me as long to get there, and now I’ve used up all of my mistakes, so I won’t be messing up today. (That is the way it works, isn’t it?) For obvious reasons, it seemed like The Nutcracker was really the only thing I could blog about today. So I’m going to do a Saturday Nutcracker-themed version of my “Random Thoughts on a Sunday Afternoon”  genre of blog posts. It would be inconvenient to carry my laptop around with me all day, especially since my dance stuff is already an encumbrance, but I can instead carry around a notebook and pen, and then type up everything when I get back. Names, pictures, and many anecdotes shall be omitted, not because they’re necessarily secrets, but because I don’t think it’s right to use my blog to talk about other people without their express knowledge and permission.

11:15, via tumblr:

My dance bag is so full. When I get to the theater, I’m going to be like, “Does anybody need to borrow anything? Safety pins? Hairspray? Eyeliner? Band-aids? Black duct tape? Silver duct tape? Legwarmers? Luther’s Small Catechism? A chess set? I’ve got it all right here, people.”

About 11:30, via mental notes:

I was in such a hurry to leave on time that I left random stuff all over the floor of my dorm room. My semi-OCD brain is very disturbed by that, despite the fact that I’m not really a neat freak. The organization of stuff does not happen to be an area in which my OCDness manifests itself.

1:20, via notebook:

Nothing like being late to get the adrenaline running. For the record, it totally wasn’t my fault.

We were supposed to be here between 12 and 12:30. I don’t know what time we actually got here, but it probably wasn’t very late, because I’ve done my hair and makeup since then, and they took me ages. My skin is so dry that the makeup just isn’t taking. From close-up, my face looks ridiculous. From far away, it probably looks okay. Still, I’m hoping that the sweat from warm-up class will make the makeup blend in, and then when I fix it, it will look fine.

2:10, via notebook:

Good things about warm-up class onstage: 1) It’s fun dancing under stagelights and seeing your shadow instead of your reflection in a mirror. Shadows are more forgiving than reflections. Take from that whatever metaphors you will. 2) It lets you get used to things like the lighting, the size of the stage, and the feel of the floor while you’re warming up. 3) Dancing in an environment with the unique smell of the combination of hairspray, extreme quantities of makeup, and sweat gets you in the performance mindset.

Bad things about warm-up class onstage: 1) It’s too crowded, and everyone keeps accidentally kicking each other. 2) Now I remember how much my stress fracture hurts from wearing pointe shoes for several hours yesterday evening.

About 2:30, via mental notes:

The curtain will be going up any minute, and I’m in the wings, ready for my first of three roles, which is as a parent in the party scene. This is the least cool of my roles, but the fun thing about it is that “my” children are awesome. Normally I have three kids, but only two of them are here for this performance. That works well, because I have two hands, so I held out both hands and whispered, “High five for good luck,” and they simultaneously high-fived me quite forcefully, demonstrating their superb high-fiving skills. I’m proud of those children.

4:34, via notebook:

Show #1 is over. It didn’t go so well. My biggest problem is this stupid stress fracture and my bruised toenails. While I’m dancing, the adrenalin sets in and I’m capable of putting weight on my feet, but the adrenalin also makes them go so numb that I can hardly feel when they are and aren’t on the ground. If that sounds really ethereal, it totally isn’t. It makes it hard for me to point my feet in the air and to balance on them on the ground. They just kind of flop and stumble around like oversized gummi bears. Red ones, because pointe shoes are tight. Then I get offstage and I almost pass out from the pain.

5:30, via notebook:

They brought in boxed lunches for us to eat in between shows, and we found a platform thing by the stairs to sit on while we eat, because cool people like to sit on platforms, especially while eating. And I ate two and a half cookies because some people didn’t want theirs, and I’m a pig, especially where chocolate chip cookies are concerned.

Ugh, I don’t want to put my pointe shoes back on my swollen, bruised feet.

9:00, via mental note:

The second show went way better than the first one, although I can imagine ways in which it could have gone better. For example, I could have not messed up the pas de chat part in the snow scene by randomly turning around in the air even though it’s just supposed to go straight. Or I could have not bumped into anyone during Flowers. Or I could just have danced better throughout the performance, depending upon how you define “could”, ‘cause I was genuinely trying to do my best. I’m just a very imperfect person.

The instant the curtain went down, I yanked off my pointe shoes. I wouldn’t have even been able to walk offstage without getting those shoes off of my feet first.

11:17 PM

Agenda for tomorrow: sleep, wake up, church, Nutcracker, homework, sleep

Waltz of the Flowers from New York City Ballet's Nutcracker

Waltz of the Flowers from the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker

Ballet is Frustrating

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I know that anyone would consider their own field of attempted achievements to be a frustrating one, but I would argue that ballet is at the very top of the frustration spectrum. (Except that spectrums are usually portrayed as being horizontal rather than vertical, but you get the idea) After all, in most pursuits, you can count on improving over time. Maybe you’ll occasionally hit a plateau for a while, maybe your skills will suffer if your motivation and dedication wane, and maybe you’ll have a bad day or week or month or year sometimes, but in the long run, hard work will pay off to some extent. Ballet doesn’t necessarily work like that, at least not for everybody. Once you reach a certain maximum proficiency level, predetermined by your degree of innate talent and your physical limitations, you won’t be able to get much better. Eventually, your skills will level off and stop improving at all, and no matter how hard you work, you’ll sit there at your horizontal asymptote forever, glumly aware that other people’s horizontal asymptotes are unfairly higher than yours.

Actually, I am exaggerating a bit here. For one thing, it isn’t true that ballet is unique in this aspect; I’m sure that the same thing is true to some extent for any field, although in many cases the asymptotes may be reached later in life, or they may be closer to the same level for different people. Besides that, the asymptote image isn’t entirely accurate because it’s always technically possible that improvement will occur later. I still maintain my case, though, that ballet is the most frustrating of any type of endeavor.

Here is an example of what I mean. The first time I did a good double pirouette, I think I was about thirteen. (To any more skilled dancers out there, yes, I know that’s pretty pathetic, but hold your contempt for a moment. It gets worse.) Now, seven and a half years later, it’s still a rare occurrence for me to do a decent triple, and on a bad day, I am still entirely capable of failing to achieve a clean double. That’s not unusual for me, which is really sad. To put that in perspective for any of you who don’t dance, that would be comparable to what it would be like if I, as an English major, suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember who William Shakespeare was. Or if a math major suddenly forgot how to multiply and divide fractions. Or if a chemistry major blanked out when trying to think of the chemical formula for water.

What’s even worse are those frequent moments when I somehow fail to point my toe or straighten my knee or something basic like that. I’ve known better than that for most of my life. Those kinds of errors could be more accurately compared to trying to read a book and struggling because I inexplicably can’t recall what sound the S makes, or trying to count but not knowing what that number is that comes in between three and five. And I don’t mean pi; I’m pretty sure there was an integer somewhere in that range. There has to be, because three and five are both odd, so there must be an even number between them. Right? Or is five even? I thought it was odd, but now I’m not so sure… I really knew how to count yesterday, honest.

That’s what ballet feels like. Except with a lot more injuries.